Friday, May 27, 2016

The Case Against Caucuses: Texas Edition

Ahh yes...the great American system of choosing our nominees for president! There's nothing else quite like it in rest of the world.

Most contests (states, territories and D.C.) have primaries with private voting booths and absentee ballots. Many of these contests also have early voting periods that can stretch up to several weeks, making it extra convenient for everyone to do their basic civic duty.

However, several other contests instead hold caucuses in which your vote is public and you must show up at one specific place and time...perhaps for several hours. And since absentee ballots may or may not be available depending on where you live, your voice may not be heard at all if you aren't able to get there and stay put for a while.

But if only it were that simple! A couple of states actually hold low-turnout caucuses on one day and a higher-turnout primary on another...with the former awarding the delegates and the latter basically a "meaningless" beauty contest (see Nebraska and Washington).

Then there was that one really big state that, until recently, held a primary and caucuses on the same day...and you were technically doing it wrong if you didn't show up for both.

I'm pretty sure that most lifelong Texas Democrats hadn't even heard of the so-called "Texas Two-Step" until the epic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton temporarily hinged on our state in March 2008. But hinge it did, which meant that educating voters about this odd and inconvenient system that had been around for years suddenly became a huge priority for both camps. But first I had to educate myself about it, as I had no idea it existed either.

Fun times with friends (March 4, 2008)
I volunteered for Hillary at an Austin voting site on election day that year and ended up spending most of my time pleading with voters in person and on the phone to show up again later that day for their caucus. And it was very important that everyone did show up twice for a couple of reasons. One, the primary only decided about two-thirds of the delegates while the caucuses decided the rest. And two, Obama had already been crushing Clinton in the caucuses that year so it already wasn't looking too good.

Anyway, here's what happened: In the 2008 Texas Democratic primary (an orderly, inclusive process which included two weeks of early voting) turnout was through the roof and Clinton ended up beating Obama 51%-47%... a margin of over 100,000 votes. However, her 65-61 delegate win in the primary ended up being reversed by Obama's 38-29 delegate win in the much lower-turnout caucuses. 

A fair result? Read this news report from one week later and you be the judge:
The state Democratic Party has washed its hands of trying to tally the results of last week's Texas caucuses as overwhelmed local officials grapple with the roundup of 8,700 precinct conventions in what may have been the nation's largest caucus ever. ...
Less than a week after the caucuses, the state party threw in the towel, saying it had ended a voluntary call-in system when fewer than half the precincts reported.
"This was a turnout that was more than anybody would have imagined," state party spokesman Hector Nieto said.
Just over 40 percent of the precinct caucuses were reported to the state. Barack Obama is leading Hillary Rodham Clinton 56 percent to 44 percent. So far, they reported electing 23,918 delegates for Obama and 18,620 for Clinton. 
Yep, this was the chaotic mess that allowed Obama to carry the state's delegates and essentially reduce Clinton's much-needed primary win to a mere bragging point:
Frustrated local officials are counting while trying to be patient with volunteer precinct officials.
In Hidalgo County, a border stronghold for Clinton, county Democratic chairman Juan Maldonado, changed his cell phone number after losing re-election and wasn't available for several days at his business, a bail-bonds office that also offers state teacher certification.
Maldonado said Tuesday he still has several precincts that haven't reported and was still working on the count.
Houston's 857 precinct results are still coming in, said Harris County party chairman Gerald Birnberg, but when precinct convention chairmen ran out of official sign-in sheets last Tuesday night, they tore the "Democrats Vote Here" signs off the wall and scrawled the preferences of caucus-goers in long hand, slowing down the count this week.
Birnberg said about a dozen workers were putting in 12-hour days since the March 4 contest just making sure the paperwork was right - they're not even tallying the results yet in the state's largest city.
In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, party Chairwoman Carla Vela is "pretty sure" all the packages have been delivered.
"We're still going through all the packages," she said. "It's such a huge county. I have a whole staff of volunteers working on them. It's going to be a while because we do have so many."
In El Paso County, the party's four employees are tasked with counting results from 170 precincts. As of Monday afternoon, they'd only been through 13.
Even as they field frantic calls from the rest of the nation, chairmen in Texas' 254 counties are still trying to figure out which precincts mistakenly sent their results to the state rather than the county and why dozens of precincts haven't contacted them at all.
I attended a caucus myself that election evening, and a few hours later filmed this video of Bill Clinton showing up at Hillary's Austin victory party right as the primary was called. In it, he thanks everyone who "braved the caucuses" and mentions reports of over 250 caucus irregularities while remaining upbeat about the overall results.

To be honest, I'm not even sure that a full and accurate count of the 2008 caucuses was ever achieved. So you can imagine my dread at the thought of yet another insane and unnecessary "Texas Two-Step" scenario again this time around...and my huge sigh of relief when the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee nixed it for 2016.

That's right, this year Texas Democrats could only vote once in voting booths over the course of about two weeks or by absentee ballot. Crazy huh? And because of that, the results were immediate and uncontroversial: Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders 65%-33%, a delegate win of 147-75. Whether or not you're happy with this particular outcome, I think you've got to admit that this is how it should be: One person, one private vote, a very inclusive process and a crystal clear result delivered without all the stress, fuss and uncertainty.

This year, Texas proved that caucuses can be disposed of without negative side effects. In fact, it worked out great. Hopefully this means the "Texas Two-Step" will be gone for good...and hopefully the rest of the nation will consider following our caucus-free lead in election seasons to come.


  1. and yet she took the high road, and both she and Bill campaigned their hearts out for Barack. And we did want it to go all the way, the press was relentlessly bullying her to get out, she was called a spoiler and now they have a real spoiler and she's too nice to name him.

    then the DNC refused to name the sexism in the press, the only one naming it this time is MSNBC's Republican girl, Nicolle Wallace dares say it. and MSNBC is all over the fake email 'scandal,' as Rosanna Anna Danna used to say, if it's not one thing that also applies to men, they'll find something that only applies to her.

    1. Yeah, the constant/accusations about a "rigged system" were notably absent from Hillary that year, huh?

  2. Amen, Scott. There should be no caucuses whatsoever - it's insane! Primaries, absentee voting, early voting - all good things while being more inclusive and democratic, not to mention private. Bernie thinks we should keep caucuses, even though he is outraged over closed primaries - ironic, huh? That tells me right there that he isn't interested in inclusive politics but only when it benefits him. So if this whole issue is part of the Democratic platform this summer and the idea is to get more people to vote, getting rid of the caucuses should be priority number one.

    1. I fully support the idea of 100% closed primaries across the nation. Want to help pick a Democratic nominee? Great! Join the party!

  3. If I recall correctly, Barack Obama won 248 caucus delegates, and Hillary Clinton won 124. I may have the numbers not exactly right, but I do recall that Barack Obama basically doubled Hillary Clinton's caucus delegates in the caucus contests even though polling showed them even or Hillary leading in most of the caucuses.

    In the actual states that held primaries in 2008, HIllary Clinton actually won more pledged delegates than Barack Obama. And that's not counting the fiasco in Florida and Michigan, North Carolina getting 14 bonus delegates for not moving up their primary, and Illinois moving up their primary date from the end of March 2008 to the beginning of February 2008. The huge Illinois win propelled Obama as the month of February was all caucuses afterwards. I'm glad Hillary and Obama are working together against the Bernenemy.

  4. Bernie and followers have a legitimate point about the Super Delegates creating an unfair sense of momentum for the insider candidate early in the race. I have no problem with eliminating the Super Delgates. Local politicians already have clout by offering endorsements and helping with organization and fundraising. If the push for this, however, the establishment should in exchange eliminate all caucuses, which tend to go overwhelmingly for whoever is perceived as the "outsider". Bernie and his ilk would have a hard time arguing against that as a compromise, and I think the net effect would actually make it harder for somebody like Bernie to win.

    1. I'd take that compromise. Gladly! Make all the Democratic primaries closed to Democrats...even better!

  5. Rhetorical: Is Bernie looking ahead to a primary challenge in 2020, and looking to grease the wheels? If so, bring it on! By that time Bernie will be 19 fads ago, and will look like an aging actor or rock star desperate for a comeback and a return to his "glory days".

    1. Or maybe he's trying to help himself win the nomination in 2020 and defeat Trump for reelection? Beats me...